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The Good, The Bad and The Baffling

For her San Francisco debut, a former Top Chef contender pushes the envelope, with mixed results.

Aveline’s fried chicken

(1 of 5)

Thompson at work in her kitchen

(2 of 5)

The dining room

(3 of 5)

Cocktails at the European

(4 of 5)

Batter for dessert

(5 of 5)

 

Where does the line fall between bold cooking and bizarre cooking? You could dine out many nights in this city of produce purists without encountering a menu that prompts such a question. But sit down for dinner at Aveline, one of two new projects in the Warwick Hotel involving erstwhile Top Chef contestant Casey Thompson, and you have fodder for debate.

Whatever side of the argument you fall on, you can’t charge Thompson with playing it safe. In an open kitchen overlooking a dining room that shines with bright white accents, the chef—a Texas transplant who worked in Dallas at a big-deal Asian-fusion restaurant called Shinsei—forsakes the straightforward for what she bills as “New California” cuisine.

She might also call it a high-wire act. Her risk-taking approach, replete with ornate presentations and unexpected pairings, results in a dizzying show, by turns delicious and dumbfounding. Edible “snow” has fallen around these parts before, but I don’t believe I’d ever seen it as flakes of frozen ham—which Thompson grates and sprinkles over amberjack crudo, a fish that she further adorns with black lime, cherry blossoms, banana purée, and dehydrated, salted banana. Fearing that she had been taking orders from a random-word generator, I braced for disaster. Somehow, though, the dish won me over with its briny hints and strange tropical sweetness. Not so the grainy goat’s milk custard, an appetizer that arrived in the throes of an identity crisis, with a brûléed top and a clashing outfit of trout roe, strawberry pearls, cucumber slivers, caramelized pistachios, and black tahini—like a starter that had suffered a botched operation on its way to becoming a dessert.

Thompson’s brain is buzzing with ideas, but her food is at its best when she keeps too many of them from colliding on the plate. Among her crisply conceived winners are her crab macarons, a trio of savory pastries plump with Dungeness crab and shrimp, served in a string-wrapped candy box that you open at the table like the gift it is. Another is her sea bass, a hulking but delicate chunk of white fish that sloughs off at the gentlest prodding into a consommé-like tomato “tea.” The zesty broth gradually intensifies, absorbing the earthiness of the favas and wild mushrooms that round out the entrée so beautifully.

More dishes like this, and Aveline would really be in business—either that, or fewer items whose complex compositions give way to muddied flavors, like an avocado starter so involved (avocado as fresh slices, mousse, and ice cream, arranged in a half-moon with viola flowers, crumpets, ground pink peppercorns, and marinated leeks) that my server stammered and fell silent when asked to describe it, like a schoolkid stumped at a spelling bee.

That sort of awkwardness is less likely across the Warwick’s lobby in the European, a new lounge with drinks by Beretta alum Adam Wilson. Thompson does the menu here, too, but her flair is applied to more familiar bar food, including housemade spam (a blend of ham and pork shoulder) with Texas toast and black grape jelly, and a burly brisket burger topped with onions, fontina, and Vegemite butter. It’s relaxed, booze-friendly cooking that meshes smoothly with its surroundings—more so, anyway, than the menu at Aveline.

I noticed this on a recent visit when I snacked at the European before moving on to the restaurant with its uncovered tables and unpolished service—a surprising lack of lacquer given the kitchen’s lofty ambitions. As the evening wore on, that busy avocado starter made way for a first-rate fiery fried chicken, its rice flour coating dusted with kimchee powder, the breast and drumstick ringed with pickled vegetables and bright crimson dots of red pepper sauce.

By the time dessert arrived, I had become a master of the mixed reaction, a useful skill when faced with pastry chef Kaley Laird’s convention-shirking sweets. I licked my chops at her lush spiced mocha ice cream; grinned at a dish called Batter, with its playful presentation of hazelnut-studded dark chocolate dough smeared inside a mixing bowl; and scratched my head at an item listed as tomato pie. Far from what was promised, it turned out to be pecan pie impregnated with tomato confit and crowned with parsley ice cream and whipped banana. Cloying and crunchy, it was something you might conjure after popping psychedelics and rummaging in your green waste bin.

You get the drift. There was good and bad. But I tip my toque to Thompson for taking chances, something that she has never seemed afraid to do. Surf online for episodes from Top Chef Season 3, and there she is, churning out experimental dishes like fried alligator steak with razor clams and braised greens. The woman goes for it.

Aveline’s next menu items? I’ll be checking back in the same way that I tune in to a reality show: not fully convinced that I’ll enjoy it, but eager to see what happens next.

 

The Ticket
A recommended dinner for two at Aveline and the European.
The European (Campari, grapefruit, lemon seltzer).........................$8
Casino royale (gin, vodka, lillet, and house-pickled onion)...............$12
Oysters, shrimp, and clams........................................................$18
Amberjack, salted banana, and cherry blossom ham snow..............$22
Fazzoletti, roasted corn pudding, squash blossom, and lime butter...$19
Fried chicken, kimchee powder, and red pepper sauce....................$26
Sea bass, fava beans, mush- rooms, and tomato tea.....................$29
Batter.....................................................................................$13
Total......................................................................................$147

Aveline and the European
490 Geary St. (near Taylor St.), 415-345-2303
Two Stars

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco.

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